The quintessential English literary character comes from a Scottish writer’s inspiration from an American author. If there’s one thing we can take from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s that he read Edgar Allan Poe. Doubtlessly Doyle acknowledged the debt, just as he pointed to the influence of one Dr. Bell. Likely, Bell himself had read Poe, and thereby impressed Doyle with Dupin-like qualities—C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of the first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Poe presented the paradigm which Doyle later lifted: An eccentric genius solving baffling crimes by seemingly miraculous powers of inductive reasoning. (Deductive reasoning takes facts and forms an argument; inductive reasoning figures out what happened based on facts.)
Because Dupin is cast in Poe’s own mold—he based his story “The Mystery of Marie Roget” on the actual murder case of Mary Rogers, which he solved from a distance just like Dupin—in a sense Sherlock Homes is the direct descendant of Poe himself.
Versions of Holmes have hit the stage and screen more times than anyone will ever know. Basil Rathbone makes a good Holmes in the 1940s, but Nigel Bruce as his dense friend Dr. Watson drags the franchise down because he’s too bumbling, too much the fool, and it’s annoying to behold Rathbone’s perpetually patronizing reactions.
From Murder by Decree, which pits Christopher Plummer as Holmes against Jack the Ripper, to Steven Spielberg’s Young Sherlock, interesting versions of the world’s most famous detective abound. The 1990s A&E TV series with Jeremy Brett has some value, but it’s no great shakes. Same with the recent ones with Jude Law providing a serviceable Watson and a decidedly not British Robert Downey Jr. miscast as Holmes.
The best production of the stories so far is the BBC’s celebrated series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the renowned sleuth and Martin Freeman as his best friend, John Watson. Each of the thirteen ninety-minute episodes—let’s hope they make plenty more—is packed with everything fans of the character could want, yet set in a modern context which even the purist of purists must love.
The acting, the writing, the music, the feel, everything is impeccable. Best Moriarty you ever saw. Ditto Irene Adler. Turns out Sherlock’s smarter, smirking brother Mycroft is played by one of the show’s creators, Mark Gatiss.
The pairing of the rightfully ballyhooed Cumberbatch with equally effective Freeman holds the show. What the world needs now is Cumberbatch and Freeman as Dupin and his chronicler in a fresh Poe franchise.